“Keshagesh means Greedy Guts. It’s what you call a little puppy who eats his own food and then wants everybody else’s.”
How do we really feel about greed, the inordinate and insatiable longing for unneeded excess wealth? It’s generally considered socially and morally undesirable. So why are gross expressions of greed not only legal but also often celebrated? Throughout the world, greed is allowed to proliferate unabated in those who amass exorbitant wealth and receive praise and admiration for their “success”.
A headline from coverage of the 2017 WEF in Davos proclaims: “Who is richer, 8 men or half the world? It’s a tie.” Forbes magazine publishes its annual billionaire’s list. Peter Phillips’ recent book Giants: The Global Power Elite, reviewed here on TMS, shows how others use the wealth and power accumulated from greed to write the laws that allow them to maintain their excessive wealth and control the messages that justify these laws.
One of those messages tells us that everyone is greedy, it’s part of human nature and there’s nothing we can do about it, reminiscent of the all too frequent response “boys will be boys” to incidents of sexual harassment. But do we ever hear, “abusing and killing people is part of human nature, there’s nothing we can do about that”? Or “addiction to drugs and alcohol is part of human nature, there’s nothing we can do about that”? In fact, we do pursue countless legal and therapeutic strategies to reduce most undesirable behavioral tendencies, but not greed.
Greed fuels the growing inequality between the super-rich and the masses of poor and destitute people that causes inestimable suffering, not only in so-called poor countries (actually they are robbed countries) like Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa, but also in what are known as the richest countries.
In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, we see the jarring contrast of Silicon Valley billionaires and ubiquitous homeless encampments. When riding the rapid transit system to my station at the end of the line, I invariably encounter forlorn souls who doze on passenger seats all day because they’ll have to wander the streets at night when the trains stop running. It’s mind-boggling that a country with so much dazzling wealth can’t commit to providing decent housing for everyone.
Greed has fueled massive theft of land and resources by colonial powers. It has driven down wages for the many to maximize profit for the few. Greed has dehumanized the nameless, faceless masses of people whose labor feeds and clothes us while suffering great deprivation.
Where do we see greed? We see it in the small percentage of people who are “crazy rich”, supported by legal structures that allow and encourage greed to bear fruit. We also see it in another subset of people who are desperately trying to become “crazy rich”. The greedy bribe whole classes of people with better wages, convincing them that their livelihoods depend on propping up the interests of the super-rich.
Greed is widespread, but far from universal. Quality of relationships and community are much stronger motivators for many.
One of my favorite NBA basketball players, David West, announced his retirement last month. At a key point in his career, he rejected a $12.6 million per year offer to play for one team and instead took contracts of about one-tenth that amount in subsequent years, with teams that he found had better cohesiveness, talent and esprit de corps.
On a seminar at the Mondragon network of worker cooperatives in northern Spain, I met a top manager who had turned down multiple offers for multi-million dollar jobs with other corporations, opting to stay in Mondragon with his relatively modest salary, because he found it more satisfying to work in an environment where everyone has a say and feels respected.
Look around you at the vast majority of people you know and can observe. Yes, many want more, but it’s rare to see someone wanting it all. An important distinction is the line between greed and selfishness.
Selfishness is much more common: a child grabbing a toy away from another (but not trying to appropriate the entire contents of the store), a the person next to you taking an extra large serving from a buffet table (but not walking off with all of the food in the whose house), a co-worker monopolizing a piece of shared equipment for his/her own project all day (but not loading the entire inventory of the company in their truck and taking it home).
Selfishness is regularly kept in check with social conventions that promote healthy relationships. Greed can run amok and allow for unlimited wealth accumulation at one end and grinding poverty at the other.
Selfishness is the common cold we treat with parental guidance and peer pressure.
Greed is a cancer that will consume us as a species unless we get serious about implementing effective interventions.
Frequent TMS contributor Robert J. Burrowes, in his essays The Global Elite is Insane, and The Global Elite is Insane Revisited, explains how psychological damage from childhood leads to insatiable greed:
“…these individuals are incapable of understanding that hoarded money and resources cannot provide them with security, particularly in the world that is coming. They are incapable of understanding that true security is the result of cooperative human relationships and a cooperative relationship between humans and the natural world.”
Hence, at its root, the scourge of greed must be tackled first and foremost at the psychological and emotional levels with a shift in deep culture to infuse every child with self-worth, empathy, and a sense of connection to all people and nature. Burrowes details a number of strategies worth pursuing.
Many indigenous communities have thrived for generations without greed, before being attacked and infected by “civilization”. The Dagara people of western Africa, as described by Malidoma Patrice Some in The Healing Wisdom of Africa, have traditions of egalitarianism and shared responsibility for the well-being of the community, loving and intentional mentorship of youth, and healing through communal rituals.
In Cuba, we see an example of a nation state today that has persisted for nearly 60 years in its commitment to the values of the Cuban Revolution, where greed is irrelevant and excessive wealth nonexistent. Human Agenda recently held an event in San Jose, California, entitled:
Ten Lessons the U.S. Can Learn from Cuba
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had even one of these?
- United to Win: Mass Participatory Democracy
- Human Rights-Based Constitution
- Decentralizing Socialized Economy
- State-Subsidized Cooperatives
- Right to Housing
- Single Payer Health Care
- Universal Public Education
- Federal Policies Saving the Planet
- Gun-Free Security
- Prohibition on Commercial Advertising
At a bare minimum, we can and should have more dialogues in the US and around the world about shifting our tax laws and budget priorities to dis-incentivize greed and galvanize our collective resources to ensure a dignified life for everyone. Lift up the bottom but also put a lid on the top.
Let’s build a house we can all live in, with a quality-of-life floor of a minimum living standard, a ceiling of maximum personal material wealth, and a beautiful garden, open to the sky, where everyone can enjoy unlimited intellectual, social and cultural wealth.
Marilyn Langlois is a member of TRANSCEND USA West Coast. She is a volunteer community organizer and international solidarity activist based in Richmond, California. A co-founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, member of Haiti Action Committee and Board member of Task Force on the Americas, she is retired from previous employment as a teacher, secretary, administrator, mediator and community advocate.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Oct 2018.